The Dallas Cowboys have a ton of things to sort out after the disaster that was 2020. While there is a real and justified hope that getting Dak Prescott healthy and signing him to a new deal will be a tremendous boost, it is hardly the only factor to consider. We have been going in depth about the huge challenges Dan Quinn faces as the new defensive coordinator. But there is a big issue on offense that must be addressed as well. That is what exactly they are going to do with Ezekiel Elliott.
Now for the twist: This is not about his big contact. That is a done deal, and he is going to be back as the starting running back. We will almost certainly see a restructuring or extension of his contract, which will net almost $7 million in needed cap space. No, this is about how he is employed in the offense this year. Last season, he was just ineffective.
Part of this is undoubtedly the injuries and constantly reshuffled offensive line. Still, if the Cowboys did truly want to win the dismal NFC East for the privilege of getting bounded in the wild card round the way the Washington Football Team did, they could have used at least a couple of games where Elliott put the offense on his back and led them to wins. Instead, he only had two games all season where he exceeded 100 yards rushing, and six times he could not even muster 50 yards on the ground. He averaged four yards per carry, which is not exactly great. It ranked 38th among all running backs. Again, the woes of the line played a big part, but he had very few big runs all year, and a ton of losses and short gains. At least some of that has to be placed on him. A big element of his lack of value to the team also has to be him leading the league in fumbles by a running back. He had five, most early in the season when Dallas was struggling mightily.
The fact is that exactly no one that faced the Cowboys were at all intimidated by him lining up in the backfield. Now Kellen Moore has to figure out the best way to utilize him, assuming that he is not lured away by the Philadelphia Eagles to try and sort out the absolute mess they have at quarterback as well as being a general trash dump fire of a franchise. You can’t say dumpster fire, because they are at least an order of magnitude beyond that, and part of our hopes Moore does not defect to the enemy is based on his being able to see just how hard that would be to fix as a first-time head coach.
Part of that calculation should be that running backs just are not that much of a factor in today’s NFL. While many teams still have a belief in establishing the run, it has once again proven to not be a viable path to playoff success in almost every case. The Tennessee Titans did ride Derrick Henry, who eclipsed 2,000 yards last season, to a home playoff game. But the Baltimore Ravens completely shut him down in their wild card contest, holding him to just 40 yards on 18 carries. The Ravens themselves had an impressive 236 yards rushing in their win, but 136 of those were by Lamar Jackson, including several scrambles on what appeared to be passing plays. Jackson is a unique talent in the league, whose legs may be more dangerous than his arm.
This is just another argument against first-down runs as the staple of an offense. Moore has shown that he is not afraid to throw the ball on early downs. He cannot completely abandon the run because that leads to predictability that is almost as bad as running it most series. He has to be willing to lean to the pass if Elliott is just getting two or three yards on first down. If he starts a game with a bunch of five plus yard carries, then it is a different matter completely. That did not happen last year, however, and it cannot be assumed it is going to suddenly change just because the offensive line is hopefully going to be healthier this year.
Just as significant is how potent the passing game was when Prescott was still on the field. In the four games before he was injured, he had three in a row with 450 or more yards passing. Why would you get away from using his arm just to feed Elliott, outside of mixing enough runs in to make the defense not sell out to defend the pass?
For that matter, Elliott might be used much more effectively in the passing game. He averaged 6.5 yards per catch last season, which was partly due to him mostly being use as an outlet receiver. He is not going to be sent on deeper routes all the time because he is still a very good pass protector, but it would be interesting to see what he could do with a few patterns down the field. He is a tough man for a defensive back to bring down one on one. If you want to intimidate defenders, having him get the ball in his hands with some open space to work in is one way to do so.
They also need to figure out if they can better utilize Tony Pollard. He had a better YPC average, 4.3, and should be considered for more than just a relief role. He presents a very different challenge for defenses with superior elusiveness as well as being more productive per catch. As with Elliott, if he seems to be getting hot, keep him out there more rather than letting the size of his paycheck determine his usage.
If Elliott is to have any big games rushing, they are most likely to come when Prescott is stretching the field with his talented receivers, leaving Elliott with fewer defenders close to the line. Motion and formation can also help empty out the box, and early success throwing the ball just makes that more effective.
Last season was just extremely distorted by the multiple problems facing the Cowboys, including the many games where the defense was just shredded, forcing Dallas to play from behind which largely took Elliott out of the equation as a runner. It still provides evidence that the team needs to find ways to be smarter using him. He also needs to play better, especially concerning ball security. Acknowledging that the offense cannot be run through him the way it was his rookie season, when he had one of the best offensive lines ever ahead of him, is key.
He still can be a valuable piece. The team just has to be honest about how he really fits.